• Diverse, Decent, Delicious

    Diverse, Decent, Delicious

    *This article was originally published in Stone Soup Syndicate*


    All around the world people are becoming more interested and invested in the food and drink they choose to consume. They want to know who made it, where it came from, how it was made, how the ingredients were grown, and how the people involved were treated. This growth of conscious consumers is arguably having a bigger impact on the world of chocolate than anywhere else, partly because the cocoa supply chain is one of the most corrupt and abuse-ridden, and partly because chocolate production has been shrouded in smoke and mirrors for the past couple of centuries. Until recently, not many people who picked up a bar of sweet brown confectionery were connecting it to the brightly coloured tropical fruit that provides its main ingredient.

    Cue the ‘craft chocolate’ movement; a new wave of small-scale chocolate makers who are making chocolate from scratch - from bean to bar - with cacao as the central focus. These producers are using rare, expensive varietals of ‘fine flavour’ cacao and aiming to produce the highest quality chocolate possible, without cutting any corners when it comes to cost or production methods. The flavours you’ll experience in craft chocolate are wildly different from mainstream industrial chocolate, with many different tasting notes to be found in these high quality cacao varietals, just like the different types of grapes in wine, or different malts and hops in beer. Craft chocolate makers are aiming to represent the uniqueness of each individual bean, rather than aiming for an end product that always tastes the same.

    cacao cocoa beans

    Until recently, if you wanted to buy an ethically made chocolate bar your only readily available option was Fairtrade chocolate. The Fairtrade scheme set out with good intentions and has certainly made some improvements to international cocoa trade, particularly with the amount of attention it has drawn to the issues of child and slave labour, but it is a long way from the best-case scenario. The Fairtrade price is relative to the Futures Market - the global centralised marketplace that predicts the future price of commodities, based on things like economics, politics and climate. Fairtrade offers a small premium on top of whatever price the Futures Market sets from afar, whilst it guarantees a minimum price (around $2300 per tonne at the time of writing) in case the market price plummets. This provides a little more security for farmers but the reality is that the price is still extremely low, and unless we see an significant increase in the Futures Market price, it’s never going to give cacao farmers a liveable wage.

    Fairtrade certification also tells you nothing about quality or flavour. Whilst there are some exceptional chocolate bars on the market made with Fairtrade cacao (check out some of the Wellington Chocolate Factory or Hogarth Craft Chocolate bars in New Zealand), a lot of chocolate with Fairtrade certification is made with low quality beans and tastes exactly the same as non-ethical chocolate.

    Of course it’s very important to clarify that if you’re planning to spend three or four dollars on a bar of chocolate, and you want to spend ethically, Fairtrade chocolate is certainly your best option. It’s a wide-reaching scheme that has a positive impact on a lot of farmers’ lives, and the more industrial chocolate makers who choose to work with Fairtrade, the better. However, if you’re the kind of person who is willing and able to pay more for chocolate that is making a much bigger impact on the lives of farmers, as well as taking the level of quality and deliciousness to new heights, then small-batch craft chocolate could be the thing for you.

    artisan chocolate

    As well as the quest to produce the highest quality and most delicious chocolate possible, craft chocolate makers are aiming to make their chocolate as ethical as possible. Many producers are working directly with farmers and communities, rather than sourcing cacao via a series of middlemen who are all clipping the ticket. When producers and growers work together in a symbiotic relationship, great things can happen for everyone involved, as well as for the quality of the core ingredients and the end product. If a chocolate maker visits a cacao farm they can learn more about the ingredients they’re using, discuss their expectations with the farmers and build organic, long lasting relationships. There are many examples of chocolate makers working with farmers to help to improve things like fermentation and drying processes, such as Spencer Cocoa in Australia or Gaston Chocolat in Vanuatu. If the quality of cacao improves, they can make a better chocolate that they can sell for more, and in turn they can pay more for the beans they purchase. The farmers can then charge more for their beans elsewhere, and gain access to the more boutique and high-level markets where producers will pay a premium for quality. Usually craft chocolate makers will be paying two, three or even four times the Futures Market price for their beans, which is a reflection of the quality of the cacao. This isn’t a situation of privileged people coming to save the day, it’s just two businesses that are in a position to influence each other’s success.

    We’re starting to see a lot of this kind of direct trade happening between cacao farmers in the Pacific Islands and craft chocolate makers in New Zealand and Australia. The Solomon Islands has been through the biggest transformation in recent years - they had a reputation for poor quality beans that often had a funky taste from improper fermentation, or smoke taint from poor drying practices. As more chocolate makers have started working with the farmers over there, such as Liz Rowe from Dunedin’s OCHO Chocolate, the quality of the beans has improved dramatically, and we’re now seeing Solomon Islands cacao being used by such celebrated makers as Dick Taylor in North America, where the craft chocolate scene is thriving.

    liz rowe

    Fine flavour and heirloom strains of cacao account for just 5% of what is grown in the world, whilst the other 95% is what’s referred to as ‘bulk’ cacao. Forastero (which is an umbrella term used to describe around ten genetic groups) dominates the world of bulk cacao because it is often the easiest, fastest and cheapest to grow. It usually has an extremely high yield and is very resistant to disease, but flavour-wise it will almost always produce a chocolate that is monotone and traditionally ‘chocolatey’, especially when heavily processed. Because of this high yield and easier growth, producing bulk cacao is an attractive option for farmers, especially if they have no access to ethical buyers of rarer, higher quality cacao. You can grow the most delicious and specialist cacao in the world but if there is nobody to sell it to then you’re not going to survive, so for many farmers the only option is to grow bland, mainstream cacao that they can easily sell in large quantities for a very low price. This results in a life of extremely hard work, long hours and minimal income.

    But with the growth of conscious consumers, along with the increased amount of high quality bean-to-bar chocolate makers, there is suddenly a much higher demand for fine flavour cacao. Choosing the path of specialisation is becoming more viable for cacao farmers, who have an increasing number of potential clients willing to pay a premium for top-level beans. Not only does this mean higher income for growers, but it also preserves heirloom strains of cacao, which possess a huge range of delightful flavours and the potential for great human experiences. Many of these varietals have been at risk of dying out, and though there’s a long way to go, there is a glimmer of hope for people who care about diversity.

    It is very early days for craft chocolate but it’s already creating some interesting shifts in chocolate buying habits. Through its focus on quality, flavour and diversity, craft chocolate has the ability to make ethical chocolate attractive to people who are not sold on ethics alone. Buying craft chocolate can be as selfish or selfless as you like, as it offers a clear conscience and extreme deliciousness in equal measures. It may take a while for people to adjust to spending over $10 on something that has always cost them much less, but once they realise this price is reflective of quality and can deliver a whole new experience, just like fine wine or craft beer, it seems likely they’ll embrace it.

    It will be exciting to see how this movement develops over the next five, ten or twenty years.

  • Breakfast TV Appearance

    Breakfast TV Appearance

    I was honoured to be interviewed on Breakfast on TVNZ1 last week. Have a watch of the interview if you like...

  • Third Birthday Pop-Up at Lashings HQ

    Third Birthday Pop-Up at Lashings HQ

    The Chocolate Bar is three years old! Where does the time go?

    To celebrate this milestone we've decided to have a little pop-up at Lashings HQ in Wellington. You can find us at 1/31 Dixon Street (upstairs) on the 9th and 10th of November from 11am to 6.30pm. Be sure to pop in and say hi - we'll have all sorts of rare and exclusive chocolate for you to taste, plus a special limited release brownie that Lashings are creating for us. More info on that coming soon!

    libertine blends

    As part of this celebration, we're also going to host a tea and chocolate pairing session with Libertine Blends. It's on the Friday night at 7.30pm and tickets are available now.

    We're looking forward to seeing our Wellington-based friends and customers, plus anybody else who happens to be passing by. We've had a great first three years in business and it's all down to the lovely people who support what we do.

    artisan chocolate new zealand 

  • The Chocolate Bar Interview 012: Olivier Fernandez

    The Chocolate Bar Interview 012: Olivier Fernandez

    For our latest interview we caught up with Olivier Fernendez, owner and chocolate maker at Gaston Chocolat, who we featured in our October subscription boxes. There are very few craft chocolate makers based in the Pacific Islands so we thought it would be interesting to learn more about what that's like, both as a lifestyle and in terms of the logistics. Be sure to have a read of this fascinating chocolate story... 

    gaston chocolat vanuatu artisan

    How did you end up living in Vanuatu and becoming a craft chocolate maker? 

    I first visited Vanuatu in 2006 [Olivier is originally from France] and met an incredible woman who is now my wife. I fell in love with her and her country. We’ve been here for over a decade and I enjoy every day with the same intensity. To me Vanuatu and Port-Vila are like Tortuga for Captain Sparrow, a place I feel attracted to and I’ve called home since the day I landed here.

    The chocolate making came from a passion for agro-development and entrepreneurship. After investing a few years working with the local cocoa growers we figured there was more to do to add value, and the processing of the beans into chocolate was a natural path. It triggered numerous trips overseas to learn and train properly in chocolate making and get our first bars made in Vanuatu. I enjoy it so much that it never feels like work to me but I have to pretend it is.

    What kind of size is Gaston Chocolat, both in terms of your premises and your team?

    We are small and growing, with a team of three full time and one part time and looking to add one more part time on sales. We have sold over 15,000 bars on the local market since October last year when we started our commercial operations. We work in a 100m2 workshop right in town, on the main street of Port Vila, the capital city of Vanuatu. We have a production capacity of about 5,000 bars per month and we are now looking to export.

    gaston chocolat artisan vanuatu

    Do you buy directly from the cacao farmers? If so, what is that relationship like? 

    We were working with the farmers before we started making chocolate. When you are in a country that grows cacao and you know how important the quality of beans is, you have to be in the field. We interact with sixty of them over seven locations in the western and northernmost islands of Vanuatu. At every location, we’ve dedicated time and resources to understand the constraints, and come up with tangible and simple solutions. We also assessed the impact of every decision. When you ask for sun-drying of the beans for example, it takes twice as much time than hot air and fire wood drying, which is commonly used for bulk grade cacao and smokes the beans. So, unless you are ready to pay twice the price for the beans, it is not sustainable.

    The science part of making beans is important and it has to be linked to the farmer’s needs and livelihood to be efficient, and to work out a fair and comprehensive pricing. After four harvest seasons we achieved constant good quality beans in volumes that could support our commercial needs. We’re out in the field at the beginning of each harvest season and we make the first fermentation together. We have a close relationship and it is essential to what we do. We chose to work with 100% local beans and want them to be of the best quality possible. The dominant genetics in the field are of the Amelonado-trinitario type, and we’ve done a lot of work on the fermentation process and post-harvest handling together.

    Are you seeing a lot of development in cacao and chocolate in Vanuatu? 

    It is hard to quantify. I see a lot of qualitative work that supports quality improvement but not necessarily volumes exported, which is usually the metrics of reference to measure a market. I have witnessed the emergence of a higher quality market to supply chocolate makers over the past 5 years, however the logistics aspect of growing cacao in a remote archipelago is a constraint that slows down the development and limits the tonnage.

    Ageing plantations and the lure of more lucrative crops or more profitable businesses have played against the cacao industry. I believe cocoa is making its way back at the forefront of the farmers’ and government’s interests, and they’re now eyeing the potential for a premium quality to export, but the road is long and there are no shortcuts. Success will come through training and infrastructure development. I believe in centralised fermentation centres and there is a need for high standard storage facilities to preserve the quality along the supply chain. Too often I see a lot of work done upstream to achieve higher quality that is lost by poor handling during transportation and storage.

    gaston chocolat artisan vanuatu

    What are some of the challenges you face with being based in Vanuatu?

    My freight costs and borrowing rate at the bank would make you jump to the roof and my power bills would nail it. More seriously, the logistics and the costs that come with moving commodities around the islands (and overseas) are challenging. The fact that we don’t access the same level of services and the remoteness is also a challenge, which we tackle by doing the extra mile of work needed to make it happen. You have to be hungry. That said, I believe every environment has its own challenges and despite those we face by being here, we are competitive with the international market and - in my opinion - the benefits of having direct access to the farmers and the beans and the beauty of this country and its culture outweighs those challenges. Vanuatu also teaches you patience or what we call “island time”. What’s not done today will be done tomorrow or maybe the day after.

    How does the growth in popularity of craft and fine chocolate affect the lives of cacao farmers in Vanuatu?

    It is a slow change. When I saw the bean-to-bar movement growing and met some well renowned chocolate makers along the road, I thought that it could change the face of the cocoa market, but some realities are far more complicated than it seems and that’s one of the main reasons why we are in the field as often as we can be. The logistics behind good beans are tremendous and preservation of the beans isn’t easy in tropical areas where they are grown, especially when the geographic nature of your country is an archipelago, with limited access to roads and a pricy shipping. The quality of the beans has improved significantly and there is a spot to take in the supply of exotic origin beans in the world market. 98% of the local production goes into cocoa butter mass production, exported overseas and bought at a lower price than top quality cocoa could be. This is where we are working to link buyers and chocolate makers with the right cocoa growers, to slowly develop the fine cacao market and get the cocoa growers additional revenue for beans that require a lot more attention and preparation work.  

    gaston chocolat vanuatu artisan

    Do the local people in Vanuatu eat a lot of chocolate? If so, is there a particular style that is most popular over there?
    Both cacao and chocolate were brought here from overseas so it’s not in the culture to eat chocolate or process cacao. Most of the time when you mention cacao people remember when they were kids and used to crack open the pods to enjoy the fresh fruity flesh that wraps the beans. Chocolate sells mainly in urban areas and in terms of chocolate style, the market relied on imports of candy bars for decades so pretty sweet and milky chocolate is popular. Since local chocolate is making its name we see an increasing interest for dark and local chocolate.
    We’re currently stocking your delicious Caramelised Nangae Nuts bar. What can you tell us about Nangae nuts? 
    Thanks for the compliment! Nangae is the name in Bislama, our main language in Vanuatu, but they are also known as Galip or Cannarium nuts in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the region. The shell is very hard but the nut is soft and wet inside. I used to enjoy them in my breakfast muesli and tried several recipes to enhance some flavours; roasting was the key. Blending the nuts with caramel allowed for butterscotch notes to develop. It’s actually a blonde sugar, not a proper caramel since we stop the cooking right at the time the sugar turns brown, to keep it light and avoid caramel taking over the nut flavour. They are supplied by a good friend who knows the archipelago like the back of his hand, and recently he took me out to one of his favourite harvesting areas in the south of Malekula Island. It was all good fun and we’ve fermented some cacao there too, while learning more of the local dialect - one in over a hundred spoken across the archipelago.

    malekula island vanuatu

    What are some of the best chocolate bars you’ve tasted recently? 

    The 70% dark single-origin Madagascar by Bahen & Co. I can taste its fruitiness and subtle floral notes by naming it, perfectly balanced and with the right creaminess. The 75% Hacienda el Rosario, Venezuela single-origin by Stephane Bonnat is bluffing, intense and malty, and the making is perfection; conching and fineness are mastered. The 70% Dak Lak, Vietnam single-origin by Marou, its honey notes from raw sugar are blending nice with the red berries and grape flavours of the beans. To finish on a local note, I met with Martyn O’dare in May, he’s a co-founder of Islands Cacao & Chocolate Ltd, and was on a bean sourcing trip in Vanuatu and brought me his Solomon Island 72% Guadalcanal single-origin, which I really enjoyed.

    What is your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?

    To see the smile eating chocolate puts on everyone’s face. I believe it talks to the kids in us.

    olivier fernandez gaston chocolat 

    Thank you so much to Olivier for taking the time for this interview. Be sure to try some Gaston Chocolat if you'd like to experience beautiful chocolate with a pure expression of Vanuatu terroir.